Hi, hey, hello!
Issue #151 of Australian Guitar hit shelves yesterday. The first third of it, as always, is full of cool shit I’ve scribbled up (or coordinated) over the past three months – including an interview I did with Dan Campbell of The Wonder Years, Aaron West And The Roaring Twenties, Clear Eyes Fanzine, and probably like 30 other projects that are yet to materialise (he also has a really cool solo project where he writes love songs for couples that commission them).
Our interview ties in to the promo cycle of The Wonder Years’ just-released seventh album, The Hum Goes On Forever. As such, that’s all you’ll be able to read about in the Australian Guitar feature (linked above, if you didn’t notice). But word counts be damned, because I caught Dan at the very end of his phoner block, he was gracious enough to give me a little over half an hour of his time – which I’m especially thankful for because he’d just finished a super busy day and very clearly needed some sleep – so I wasn’t going to just sit there and not ask about Aaron West.
I think Aaron West might be my favourite Dan Campbell vehicle – it has all the cerebral grit and raw emotion of The Wonder Years, but a bendier and more colourful, folk-tinged musical palette that allows Dan’s lyrics to really shine. Routine Maintenance was absolutely one of the top five best albums of 2019 – so, as we come up on its four-year anniversary next May, I’m naturally curious about what Dan has planned for album number three (if he even has one planned).
He was hesitant to give me any concrete details or expound on his concepts, lest they shift in the months to come, but he was happy to chat about his vision for the project.
There was a five-year gap between Routine Maintenance and the first Aaron West album, 2014’s We Don’t Have Each Other, but I’m truly hoping that isn’t the case for the next record. It may well be – 2023 is shaping up to be a huge year for The Wonder Years (with an Australian tour on the cards, to boot), and Dan has a bunch of other really cool shit in the pipeline, like a graphic novel, in addition to being a dad for his pair of toddlers.
Whatever the case, there is a future for the Aaron West project, and I’m excited to see it. If you’re reading this, you probably are too. So, just for you, here are the offcuts from my interview with Dan, where we chatted about Aaron West 3: The Revenge Of Rosa & Reseda. (not the actual title… unless?)
Have you started chipping away at Aaron West LP3 yet?
Not quite yet. I was supposed to start over the summer, but I got really busy with another project. I’ve had this idea for a graphic novel for, like, almost a decade now. And I was on tour with Aaron West, playing a show, and suddenly, in the middle of the set, the third act [of the novel] – which has eluded me for years – kind of just hit me all at once. So I was like, “I’m gonna work on this all summer!” I put in a bunch of work on that, and then I had to stop because we were getting closer to album time [for The Wonder Years] and I had a lot of other responsibilities.
That’s a long-winded way of saying, “I have some ideas for Aaron West LP3, but I don’t think I’ll be able to sit down and start writing them out in earnest until… Probably December.”
So where do you see the project – and the story – heading next?
Well, I don’t want to give too much away about the story, but I think [Aaron West And The Roaring Twenties] is a really interesting thing because it’s almost a singular art form – which I know sounds very up-my-own-ass, but here’s the thing: it is a band, yes, and it’s telling a story – a narrative story – and other bands have done that, sure. But I do the live show in character too, which makes me think, “Okay, well, maybe this is musical theatre.” Think about it: you’re performing music in character, the monologues are in character too… It’s basically a play at that point, right? But it’s not musical theatre because musical theatre is static – the story is the story, it’ll be performed the same way every night, and that’s it.
If on a Friday night, one of the cats from CATS dies… Which might be a part of the musical? I actually don’t know… My wife is going to kill me, she loves CATS… But you know, if one of the cats dies in the show, the next day, the story resets and that cat is alive again. But that’s not the case here, right? The story is dynamic because of what happens on stage. And in that way, I think it’s more like professional wrestling – that’s the only art form I can think of where it’s performed live in front of an audience, and what happens on one night furthers the story for the next night. Can you think of a different type of art that would be corollary to that?
No, which makes it a really interesting comparison! How does that inform your songwriting process?
When I started the project, it was only supposed to be one record – but then people liked it. So if you listen to Routine Maintenance, there are references to all these things that happened on the first record’s tour. I took calendars and I highlighted dates, like, “This is when I was on tour here, this is when I played that one show here,” to make sure that if Aaron West was standing on a stage in St. Louis, Missouri on a particular date, then on the record – in the canon of the story – that’s where he was on that date.
Things have happened [since Routine Maintenance came out] that are obviously going to be a part of the story going forward, because they are as they happened on stage. Like, “Aaron’s sister Catherine has joined the band to play piano” – that actually happened at a real show, in front of people! And that obviously has to be part of the story going forward. But the only thing I know for sure about the next record is that I want to make it with the biggest band I’ve made a record with. I think I’m looking at a 14- or 15-piece band.
I love that the narrative is informed by the band’s actual trajectory, too – I didn’t know that. I feel like I’m going to have so much more appreciation for Routine Maintenance when I revisit it now. Thank you for that!
Yeah, you’re welcome. There’s a few moments on it where I had to, like, zhoosh some things around because they weren’t supposed to happen the way they actually happened. I wasn’t supposed to make another record to begin with, so I had to retcon a few things to make it work. But yeah, it’s all there. And there’s actually a few little inside jokes in there – I’ve never told anyone what they are, but I want people to find them someday.
The most fun thing about doing Aaron West is that the people who play in the band with me are not people that are, like, touring professionals. They’re just my friends, from home or from school or whatever, that are really talented and great performers, but never got a shot in the industry – for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which being this is a very difficult and cutthroat industry. But I get to be like, “Hey, you guys want to come and tour England with me? Wanna come play all over America?” And when I’m onstage and I look to my right and left, and I see the joy on their faces, stoked to be out and playing and hearing people sing along, it’s really fucking awesome. That’s why I just want to bring more people in – more and more and more!
You’re not worried about it getting too cluttered?
Well you know, not everybody would be playing all the time. Right now when we play live, it’s myself playing acoustic guitar and singing, and then we’ve got people on electric guitar, bass, drums, piano, accordion, trumpet, saxophone and trombone – so that’s nine. Sometimes we play with a lap steel, which is ten. The 11th instrument that gets played live is a banjo, but we usually have the sax player or the trumpet player on it – but if we were doing it as a 15-piece, I would have a separate banjo player. So that’s 11. And then if we bring in a string quartet, that’s 15 right there.
So like, say you’ve got a 30-date Wonder Years tour lined up, and there’s a block where you got four days off – will you go, “Hmm, I’m bored, and I’ve got the energy… I’ll do an Aaron West show!” Or is that not possible with the setup you have?
I’ve done it. But you know, it’s very rare that we’ll ever have that many days off on a Wonder Years tour [laughs]. It’s happened a few times. It happened in the UK once and we played an Aaron West set as a four-piece, because Nick [Kennedy] from The Wonder Years plays drums in Aaron West; and LJ, The Wonder Years’ guitar tech, plays guitar in Aaron West; so Casey from The Wonder Years filled in on bass and we played as a four-piece. It also happened once in in Australia – that wasn’t even an off-day, we just had time to kill before the show so I played a set in a record store in Melbourne. That was really cool. And once on the West Coast, I did a couple of solo shows… So yeah, it can happen. But my preference is to do shows with the band, the way that it is intentionally structured.
You should bring that to Australia.
I would love to! But [the band] is one of the many things that makes it so challenging – I looked at The Wonder Years and said, “Hmm, not enough members!” Like, it is so fucking expensive for The Wonder Years to tour Australia. We were about to lose a bunch of money to play at the Full Tilt festival – which we were fine with, because we fucking love coming to Australia – but like, the flights are crazy right now. So to be like, “Yeah, I’m gonna bring this minimum-seven-piece band to Australia…” I’ve gotta find someone who’s willing to pay for that!